An adult bald eagle is a distinctive bird in every way, large and dark with brilliant white head and tail and great broad wings. The eagle’s flight is distinctive, too. The wings can propel it swiftly forward on deep, slow strokes. Or they hold the bird aloft and soaring.
It’s no wonder, then, that the founders of the country chose the bald eagle to represent the United States. It would have been a familiar bird to all of them.
In colonial times, bald eagles were common almost everywhere along the Atlantic Coast, and particularly so on Chesapeake Bay, near where the nation’s capitol was established.
The founders wouldn’t have known this, but the eagle occurred widely across North America and almost exclusively in North America. Before Europeans spread across the continent, bald eagles probably occurred almost everywhere that water was deep enough for fish. Fish are a bald eagle’s favorite food.
Eating fish led to trouble for bald eagles. Pesticides, especially DDT, built up in the bodies of fish, were taken into the eagle’s digestive system and led to softening of the shells of their eggs. As recently as the turn of the century, there was deep concern about the plight of eagles.
Eagles have rebounded. It took awhile after DDT was banned, but now bald eagles are common enough that seeing one is no longer a surprise. Eagles are established as a nesting species in the Devils Lake area and in the Red River Valley. Re-established is the better word. We know from reports of explorers and ornithologists that eagles nested in the area before 1900. They were also abundant along the Missouri River, especially beyond the point where the great river turns south to flow toward the Gulf of Mexico rather than east across North Dakota toward the Great Lakes. Today bald eagles are year ‘round residents there, because discharge from Garrison Dam keeps the water open and the fish available.
The bald eagle hung on in northern Minnesota even during the decline. In recent years, the species has become more abundant. Across Canada, too, eagle numbers have grown.
This is a good time of year to see eagles. Although they like fish and will eat fish when they can, they also are opportunists. They eat what they find. This often means carrion. This is easy to find at this time of year, as snow melts away and exposes gut piles and roadkill carcasses. Sometimes, an eagle will rise from a meal on the shoulder of rural highways, even the busy interstates. Sometimes, too, they’re seen on the ice of good-sized lakes, scavenging for the remains of fish.
In our area, these birds are migrants moving north. Some wintering eagle ranges are well known. One is at Fort Randall Dam on the Missouri River in southeastern South Dakota. Likely, some of the birds that winter there pass through our region on their way to nesting grounds in Canada. Some may be the birds that have repopulated the valley.
Eagles are hardy birds. I’ve seen bald eagles in Grand Forks County in every month of the year. It’s not clear to me that eagles actually spend the winter locally, although they may. At least three pair nested in the immediate area last year, and there may be more nesting eagles than that.
Although adult bald eagles are unmistakable if clearly seen, there is room for confusion. Golden eagles and turkey vultures are big, dark soaring birds. Turkey vultures have small, bare heads; golden eagles are completely dark. In good light, they show a golden sheen on the back of the neck.
Greater confusion occurs among bald eagles themselves. They are four-year birds, meaning they are not fully mature until they are three years old. Birds in the first year are dark. In the second year, some white begins to show, especially under the wings, and in year three, bald eagles are a mottled assemblage of white and black feathers.